Monthly Archives: February 2016

London calling, Bilbao seeking

So let’s talk about London. Vastly different from Edinburgh. The train ride down was smooth and peaceful. Like my flight to Venice, I was blessed with two empty seats, so naturally I took the one by the window. I had packed a few bread rolls from Sainsbury’s, as well as a canned drink for the ride. I had downloaded some music the night before that I had “shazamed” in the last few weeks. To anyone who knows me, I pay special attention to what is played in pubs, clothing stores, or the soundtracks to movies. This music soothed me as I watched vigilantly out the train car window. The Scottish and English countryside is exactly as people say it is: green, lush, and, at times, desolate. I saw a lot of sheep, some with black faces, some with white. Horses too, huddled together in muddy paddocks under tattered blankets.

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I met Meredith at the Kings Cross train station in the early afternoon. We rounded the corner and I saw a thick queue (pronounced “Q” which is the Scottish/British way of saying “line”) leading to an old-fashioned train trolley (or luggage/shopping cart) stuck halfway through the brick wall. It was platform 9 and 3/4.

After checking into Gallery Hyde Park Hostel, Mere and I set off for the afternoon. She showed me the fancy neighborhood her apartment is located in, one that is famed for housing Adele. “She’s in L.A. right now though,” Mere said as we walked the bright, clean boulevards of Kensington. We got burgers for dinner from a local place and took the Tube to Westminster station. I trudged up the steps, and then Meredith told me to look up. Big Ben, as if out of nowhere, scraped the sky above my head.

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We walked by the famed abbey, and then listened as the bell tolled inside the clock tower. I grew up watching a Disney movie called “The Great Mouse Detective,” a sort of spin off of Sherlock Holmes for kids. In the second to last scene, the “falling-action” scene where Basil of Baker Street battles the evil Rat King, their fight happens inside the clock of Big Ben on a stormy London night. As the bell struck in raspy tones, this childhood memory came to me.

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Wednesday was a blast; Meredith’s professor let me do a walking tour with the rest of the class. It was geared towards Charles Dickens, and the poverty he wrote about in the city. I love his work, and was thrilled to learn about a section of London through the lens of Dickens, as well as the history around the area.

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I saw the London eye both at night when it glowed a cold red and in the day when it floated slowly around and around.

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I walked around the Globe on a night when it rained hard with Meredith, her roommate Emily, and I. We talked about travel, the ups and downs of it, and where we dreamed of going someday. Emily had been to a lot of places I wanted to go, and she and I exchanged information about the places we desired to travel to. Emily was interested in Edinburgh, and asked me a bit about it. I liked being able to vouch for Scotland; I felt like a legitimate local, telling people all about Edinburgh and being able to answer questions about the city for curious travelers.

The biggest difference I noticed while in London when compared to Edinburgh is transportation. Meredith takes the Tube quite literally everywhere. I, on the other hand, walk everywhere. I have only taken the public bus when I need to get to and from the airport. The Tube is a very nice facility, running constantly and smoothly all over the city all day and night long. It is, as I am sure some have heard, expensive. To conserve money, I’d walk to Meredith’s apartment through Hyde Park. Honestly, this was my favorite part of London. Like Central Park in New York City, this park makes one feel like they are hardly in a major city at all. As I walked through on that first morning, I heard the faint roar and lurch of taxis and buses. They felt far away though, and I felt peace amongst the stress and madness travel can inflict. I felt strong as I walked, the muscles in my legs functioning fully and my feet bearing my weight effortlessly. I think a part of why I found it a little hard to enjoy London as much as I love Edinburgh is because I couldn’t walk everywhere. I like the ide of being able to get to where I want or need to go on my own two feet. While Europe, and London especially, has public transport down pat, I think walking is the favored way of getting around for me.

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A man in Hyde Park that morning was walking with his dog, no leash to be seen. The dog was probably some kind of retriever; it’s fur blond and straight. It carried a wet, large twig in its teeth. Every few paces it would run around the feet of the man and drop the stick on the path, cock it’s head to the side, and wag its feathery tail. The man ignored the dog’s desire for play, walking on through the park. The dog’s behavior made me laugh outright.

I didn’t shower the whole time I was in London. The hostel I stayed at was quality in most regards (free breakfast and tea every morning, safe environment, interesting people), however, I asked four separate times to rent towels (since the establishment offered them) and each time there were none for me. While this may have been out of their control, the system of towel-renting seemed flawed in many respects.

I didn’t sleep much Thursday, my last night in London, due to a girl in my room (I shared one with five or six other girls) snoring like a duck the entire night. However, the next morning I rolled off my bunk, tied up my greasy hair, packed my little rucksack and checked out, all more or less with a smile on my face.

There were two young children screaming and crying throughout the flight to Bilbao. It was like they were having a competition as to which could make more noise. Or, like they were communicating to each other by means of screams, shrieks and wails.

Bilbao was a dream! Though Meredith and I got there late Friday night, we met up with Hannah, got on the cheap public bus, checked into our hostel (which was honestly more like a fancy hotel for a hostel price!) and got late night dinner. Before going out though, of course, I was able to shower for the first time in four days. That was, well…direly needed. I slept like a rock on the mattress that was (tragically) more comfy than the one I sleep on in Scotland.

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We had all day Saturday together, so we were up early exploring the cute little city. We ate sour tangerines (that were only 9 cents!) and walked through the fish market. We walked through the Plaza Nueva, where we would later have tapas and red wine for dinner. Then we walked beside the canal that runs through the small city, soaking in the sun. We came upon the Guggenheim museum, as well as a few street performers (massive bubble makers, men playing flutes, violins, guitars and saxophones). We decided not to go inside the museum, due to it being a bit expensive, and not all of us were major fans of pop, modern art. However, there was a lot of artistic structures all around that part of the canal, (including the famed creepy crawler spider statue) and that was enough for me.

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We crossed over one of the beautiful bridges (that reminded me faintly of the lovely bridges in Portland, Oregon) to get to the funicular de Artxanda. Hannah had told us the night before about this sort of ski lift type of thing that takes you up one of the foothills (since Bilbao is surrounded by mountains) for 95 cents! I was thrilled to do this, and the view was so beautiful.

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I asked Hannah a lot of questions; I was so curious about this beautiful little place not many people have talked about. When people think of Spain, nine out of ten times, students studying abroad will scream Barcelona. The other major Spanish city people will go to and talk about is Madrid. I was surprised when my Irish flat mate told me he had been to Bilbao. Hannah told me about Bask (not sure if that is how you spell it?) the native language of that region of Spain. She told me about how the schools there make the language part of the curriculum so that it does not die out. I thought about how people in Scotland do the same for Gaelic as well as Scots language. I think this is important, and it made me appreciate Bilbao even more.

The tapas we had for both lunch and dinner were to die for. Meat is a major component to the food culture here. There was fish in almost every stand in the market we walked through Saturday morning. There were butcher shops on every block, and we even discovered a vending machine that sold packaged meat! The wine was also excellent, and of course Hannah had Meredith and I eat Churros for the first time. It was astounding, and utterly delightful.

The Guggenheim from across the canal
The Guggenheim from across the canal

We had to wake super early to get back to the U.K., so Meredith and I went to be early that night. We heard men down below in the bar across from out hostel singing happy birthday in Spanish. If ever in Europe, or in need of a beautiful, chill place to spend a few days, I highly suggest Bilbao.

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This weekend I’ll be going on a three day tour in the Scottish Highlands through my school. We will go to Inverness (which I have heard good things about), Loch Ness (why not, if you are in Scotland?) and Isle of the Skye. I am quite excited! Until then, your proper Scottish lassie is signing off for the moment!

Carnivale Adventure!

This weekend, I embarked for the first time on my own out of my adoptive city to Venice, the beautiful water city in northern Italy. I traveled there for two main reasons: I was meeting up with Carrie, my twin sister, for the first time since being in the States, and also to experience Carnivale, (or Carnevale di Venezi), the Italian version of Mardi Gras. I was glad that I waited a month into my semester before I traveled pretty far away from my home base, just so that I could really get comfortable with where I was before I tried a whole other place.

Carrie and I had been to Venice when we were thirteen, and I recall seeing all the masks in every shop on every corner. However, we had been there a few months after the actual event, and we thought it would be really fun to return to a place we had explored years before and rediscover it. We stayed in San Marco, one of the best places to be during Carnivale. I booked a hostel a few minutes walk from San Marco Piazza, it being one of the cheapest places to stay considering how expensive Venice is this time of year and in general. It was located back a block or two from the main waterway, tucked into one of the quiet, peaceful, residential streets. There was a tiny café right across the alley that Carrie got coffee in both mornings we were there (since I don’t drink coffee) and a grocery store a few more blocks behind us.

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Friday night overlooking Venetian waterways
Friday night overlooking Venetian waterways

I got my first experience in a European hostel, entirely planned and booked by myself. Carrie and I shared a room with three other girls, and we were put up on a (surprisingly) comfortable bunk bed. Two of the girls we stayed with were backpacking around the world (not just Europe) since they had graduated in December. They were really fun to talk to and exchange travel stories with. One of them asked me about Scotland, and if it was hard for me to understand the accents. This made me laugh, and I told her yes, occasionally. I also reiterated that terminology is a big difference, like how a “chip” here is a “French fry” in America, or a “biscuit” here is a “cookie” at home. She told me that when she was in London, she heard someone use the word “carriage” to describe a train car, and how that made her feel like she was being thrust back a couple hundred years when cars didn’t exist. For the first time, I felt purposeful, like I was considered a local in the country/city I was from, and that I could give out information about that place to people and that it held value.

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Hotel Casa Linger

Anyways, Carrie and I had a warm, relaxing Saturday in Venice. We had arrived pretty late the night before, and had to leave early the next morning, so we made the most of the full day we had together. We woke early and bought bread, hummus and cheese at the grocery store, then explored for most of the day. We bought 3 euro masks, put them on, and people-watched in San Marco Piazza. We saw so many people dressed up in intensely detailed costumes; among the masquerade-ers in our midst, we spotted the Angel of Death, with white, decadent, feathery wings. We ran into many elite, seventeen-century French people, Mimes, and Native Americans playing wooden pipes and stringing multicolored beads. I was astounded by the craft and detail that go into producing the masks and costumes for this event. Carrie and I went into a fancier, pricier mask store, just to look around. I wondered how many hours, weeks, and months go into making the masks, just for a one-month event out of the twelve-month year.

Though we didn’t pay a ridiculous amount of money to attend any of the events that were being put on, it was still so much fun to experience Carnivale just by pure observation. Being the literary person that I am, I kept remembering and picturing Edgar Allan Poe’s two famed short stories: The Masque of the Red Death and The Cask of the Amontillado. “Supreme madness,” is how Poe described carnival season.

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I was pretty stoked for some sun after a long time without it!
I was pretty stoked for some sun after a long time without it!

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"It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend," -Edgar Allan Poe, Cask of the Amontillado
“It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend,” -Edgar Allan Poe, Cask of the Amontillado

Carrie and I got gelato and hot chocolate later in the day, and sat in a park under the sun. I had really been missing the sun, since Scotland (as some of you may have heard, perhaps in passing) is not the warmest place in the world. Though the air was a bit nippy, I soaked in the warmth, and Carrie and I caught up with each other on everything we had missed in the past month apart. I think I needed the reassurance, especially from Carrie, that every hard thing I have been confronted with concerning the culture, homesickness, and the like, was all a normal part of transitioning into this new experience.

Enjoying the sun by the water in our masks!
Enjoying the sun by the water in our masks!

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If my Latin/Italian background is correct, this graffiti reads: "Good morning beautiful spirit/soul!"
If my Latin/Italian background is correct, this graffiti reads: “Good morning beautiful spirit/soul!”

Later that night, we got a good pasta and bruschetta dinner at a restaurant a few blocks from the piazza that the girls from our hostel suggested. On our way back towards our hostel, we stopped and watched some couples dancing in the piazza. They were doing what I believe is tango, and there was a stereo nearby playing rich, pleasant music. One couple in particular was really going at it, doing lifts and fancy footwork, until suddenly, their legs got tied up somehow and they both fell straight down with a crash onto the stone. I cringed while people whooped and yelled (what I thought sounded like) encouragement, and applauded their effort. The pair helped each other up and decided that was a good time to take a break from dancing. I spotted Orion in the black sky as Carrie and I walked home, and I was really happy with where I was at that moment.

We went to the grocery store again and bought a bottle of white wine and chocolate and strolled the alleys some more. We heard what sounded like a concert from up ahead, and followed the sound until we came upon a DJ giving an outdoor concert. There were posters of Bob Marley beside the speakers, and they only played his music. We danced for a little while, and I noticed a lot of young, traveling, college-aged people having fun and talking all around us.

Before going to bed, I heard more music making its way down below our window, and Carrie and I darted over to see what was going on. There were a few Italian men beating a drum, shaking rice shakers, and blowing into a pipe while dancing down our little street. The first word that came to mind was “Bellisimo!” So that is exactly what I screeched at them as they passed. They yelled back in excitement, fist pumping like champions.

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I loved being in Italy again. I had traveled there a few times before, and it felt familiar and comfortable to me. The language is so delicious to listen to, and it was easy for me to pick back up some of the phrases that I had known from before. I noticed, in my traveling experience, that whenever one comes into a new country, specifically into a new language, one of the first phrases you learn is “thank you.” Saying grazie was very essential throughout this past weekend, and when my family and I were in the Middle East, shukran was also used often. Even when passing through airports, like the Paris one, merci usually comes in handy. Being thankful to the countries you visit, even if it is to a grocery clerk, the girl behind the gelato counter, or the guy that stamps your passport at border control, being grateful ought to be a priority.

 

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Rainy Sunday morning in Venice
Rainy Sunday morning in Venice
Rain soaked gondolas
Rain soaked gondolas

This weekend I’ll be going to Aberdeen on a day trip (just like the one to Saint Andrews), and next week I won’t have classes due to “Innovative Learning Week,” also know to students at Edinburgh as “Go Home Week.” I’ll be visiting two friends from Mary Washington that week; one is in London, the other in Spain! I am very excited! Until then, stay tuned!